On April 30, 1945, the photographer Lee Miller and Dave Scherman, also a war photographer and a close friend of Miller's, entered Munich with the American 45th Division that was liberating the city. They happened upon a dilapidated and normal-looking apartment building on Prinzenregentplatz 27, and realized, upon entering, that it was Hitler's Munich apartment. They billeted there for three days. Miller wrote her Vogue editor Audrey Winters:
I was living in Hitler's private apartment when his death was announced, midnight of Mayday. . . . Well, alright, he was dead. He'd been an evil-machine-monster all these years, until I visited the places he made famous, talked to people who knew him, dug into backstairs gossip and ate and slept in his house. He became less fabulous and therefore more terrible, along with a little evidence of his having some almost human habits; like an ape who embarrasses and humbles you with his gestures, mirroring yourself in caricature.
While staying in Hitler's Munich apartment, Miller and Scherman took photographs: some journalistically record scenes of Hitler's prestigious paraphernalia and Hitler-infused sites - such as his desk- whereas others seem more like vacation snapshots, such as a photograph of Miller sitting at Hitler's desk. The most disturbing, and beguiling, of these "snapshots" is a photograph of Miller bathing in Hitler's bathtub. I suggest that this photograph isn't just a simple snapshot, but rather that it depicts a multi-faceted commentary on truth: first, it represents a truth that it consciously disguises, a truth enacted through a ritual which the photograph records; second, by disguising this truth, the photograph becomes a commentary on propaganda, especially the way that propaganda and its methods shaped what people believed about the concentration camps during the war. This image becomes a case study related to a theory that truth - what propaganda purports to present- and non-truth - falsifications still related to truth- act spatially. By understanding Miller's use of space and irony in constructing photographs, I explore this image as reverse propaganda, a type of propaganda that denies representing truth, and so constitutes truth ironically.
As an artist, Lee Miller was trained and actively participated in the Surrealist movement. She arrived in Paris in 1929 from New York, where she had learned photography at an early age from her father. While in Paris, she became Man Ray's protégé and lover, and befriended many of the French Surrealists. Jane Livingston, who curated a recent retrospective of Miller's work and wrote the text for the corresponding catalog, noted how Miller's early Surrealist photographs didn't employ absurd, often humorous, juxtapositions - which was more common with the painters, such as Salvador Dali and René Magritte- but sought more of the arresting in everyday life. Nonetheless, Miller did cultivate a wry use of Surrealistic humor.
Humor was a favorite tool of the Surrealists, especially irony, or the interplay of objects and images that contradict one another, and so evoke the mystery and non-linearality of the unconscious mind. Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst - all acquaintances and friends of Miller's- used various degrees of irony in their work. While much of Miller's early work produced in collaboration with Man Ray shows an interest in adapting his more abstract techniques and photographic processes - such as solarization- Miller's later war-time work did develop an ironical bent. Her ironies sometimes depict everyday humorous situations, such as her 1940 photograph Eggceptional Achievement where the joke lies in the depiction of two geese who have adopted an egg-shaped barrage balloon. Of course, considering the circumstances, most of Miller's humor is dark and bitter. She produced this image and many others for a book entitled Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, which chronicled everyday life among the destruction caused by the blitz. As Miller noted in her stream-of-conscious, Surrealist prose:
It became a matter of pride that work went on - the studio never missed a day - bombed once and fired twice - working with the neighbouring building still smouldering - the horrid smell of wet charred wood - the stink of cordite - the fire hoses still up the staircases and we had to wade barefoot to get in.
As Miller's passage and photographs suggest, London during the Blitz became itself a living irony, an irony employed for survival; the rhetorical device of irony permitted Miller to stoically maintain life-as-usual within a world she experienced as unceasingly wracked by explosions.
Another focus that characterizes Miller's photographs is an especially thoughtful portrayal of space. Especially in her Grim Glory photographs, Miller shows an acute fascination with the relation of interior and exterior spaces, such as doors and windows. These spaces between interior and exterior are themselves ironic, for they are neither. In the 1940 Grim Glory photograph, Nonconformist Chapel, Miller photographed a rubble-filled church door to present an interior space denied to the exterior world, thus depicting an irony which is spatial - the church door to the exterior world has denied entrance into its interior; it is therefore denying its own function. Furthermore, by using a title referring to the building's purpose and current state while not referring to the cause of its destruction - it could have just as easily been called "Bombed Chapel During the Blitz"- Miller has constructed a densely ironical image. The title contradicts the entire reason for this image's recording - the documentation of a bombed building- and instead becomes a wry non-sequitur on the rigid adherence to dogma that religions. This construction of ironic space will be further developed in the image of Miller in Hitler's bathtub, but first the historical context of that image must be examined.
In 1942, Miller became an officially accredited U.S. Forces War correspondent, and, like her photographs of and writings about London during the blitz, Miller recorded much of the war as a spatial irony. By this point in her experience as a war journalist (for she took the photographs and wrote the corresponding articles, both in an effusive Surrealist style), Miller had chronicled progressively more destructive and horrendous experiences: a field hospital, the siege at St. Malo (where she unknowingly became one of the first people to photograph a napalm attack), and the Alsace campaign. Yet, none of this prepared her for the horrors that awaited her upon being one of the first journalists to enter the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Nothing could have; she noted how "[e]ven after the place was ninety-five percent cleaned up, soldiers who are used to battle casualties lying in ditches for weeks are sick and miserable at what they see here." In her earlier writings, Miller presented an unabashed disdain for Germans. This disdain transformed into outright hatred as she witnessed Buchenwald. Miller was sickened and astonished, as was even Patton, at the Weimar residents' claim that they knew nothing about the concentration camps. As Miller noted, Patton arranged for each and every Weimar citizen to be given a tour of the camp. The seeming innocence of the Weimar citizens infuriated Miller, and her articles are rife with comments about this disparity between reality versus a failure to acknowledge reality that she considered inconceivable to those living so close. In the same article about the camps, she described the liberation of a Gestapo jail:
The impressive thing about this jail was that it was in the heart of Germany. These things had been done inside the Fatherland. . . . These were not the feared SS men or the Godly elite, they were the rear echelon Nazi and public government officials, quite normal. This went on in a great German city where the inhabitants must have known and acquiesced or at the very least suspected and ignored the activities of their lovers and spouses and sons.
This disparity between reality and a lack of acknowledgement Miller evokes in photographs from Buchenwald and Dachau, especially those instances of scathing, heartbreaking irony, when the indignities and horrors suffered by those in the camps become contradictory to their place. The most striking example is a photograph she took of a rabbit farm at Dachau: "One block is an Angora rabbit farm where the rabbits are an industry of the prison. They are much less crowded and better cared for than humans, beautifully clean and housed - lovingly looked after by Capo prisoners."
Miller extended her bitter fascination with the irony between what she witnessed as truth and the German peoples' refusal to witness and acknowledge this truth when she photographed the crematorium. She wrote:
The crematorium was out of fuel for long enough to pile up two rooms of bodies. The gas chambers look like their titles, written over the doors, 'SHOWER BATHS'. The elected victims having shed their clothes walked in innocently, leaving their prison clothes behind them, to be bathed and deloused. Turning on the taps for the bath, they killed themselves, thereby saving the SS the stigma of being murderers.
Miller's many descriptions of the gaps between acknowledgment and knowledge itself, as well as truth versus the disguising of truth - such as the lengths the Nazis' would go to disguise the proof of their mass killing- relate to concepts of propaganda.
Propaganda, as historian David Welch points out, was not just a means during wartime of building beliefs against one's enemies, but moreso a means of maintaining these beliefs. Furthermore, Leonard Doob, in his 1935 book Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique, noted two types of propaganda: psychological and social, indicating that,
Where there is conflict, two types of conflicting propaganda are inevitable. Conflict implies a disequilibrium within the mental fields of individuals that has resulted from a disequilibrium in the social structure; the consequent tensions which these individuals experience find or try to find their resolution in the panaceas offered by rival propagandists.
In other words, Doob implies a sociological conflict between levels and perceptions of truth - or that which is known and believed to be true versus that which actually is true- as disseminated in propaganda to the individual. However, the levels of depicted truth in propaganda become less and less actual truth. As Welch states, propaganda "operates with many different kinds of truth - from the outright lie, the half truth, to the truth out of context." Therefore, I propose that truth, when considering propaganda, operates as a type of space. If truth is the core of this space, then expanding outward from this core would be what I consider non-truths: the half-truths, falsifications, and lies that Welch mentioned. All of these non-truths must, to be false, still relate to the core truth, thus defining a distance. However, the less actual truth contained in the non-truth, the further distance it exists from the core truth. More telling, especially in relation to Miller's practice as a photographic journalist, Doob considered photography a prestigious and more effective type of propaganda than writing. This, he claimed, was because of photography's nature as a scientific tool and its ability to record what people actually see, which implies an inherent level of truth. Thus, the non-truths presented in photographic propaganda were perceived as more believable, and therefore as less distant from the core truth. Propaganda, especially photographic propaganda, depends upon but simultaneously seeks to repress any space distancing truth and non-truth.
To fully understand this space between truths and non-truths, and how Miller uses it, it must be determined what "truths" Miller and her contemporaries would have known about the Nazi plan for "social cleansing" as connected with the concentration camps. For this information, I turn to the social context of Doob's book: written in 1935, Doob spent an entire chapter charting Nazi propaganda from its inception to around 1933. He reprinted parts of the twenty-five point program laid out by the National Socialist Party. Most revealing is point four, which states, "A citizen can be only he who is a man of the folk. A man of the folk can be only he who has German blood, without regard to his confession. No Jew can be, therefore, a man of the folk." As for visual propaganda, Doob described a poster which appeared in September 1930, which compared profiles of Jewish members of the Reichstag with those of German Nazi candidates. The poster breaks down into simple physical terms the concept of Jewishness and Jewish racial inferiority by visually placing Jewish features against the supposedly superior features of true German blood. Thus, from the start, through the dissemination of propaganda, the racism against the Jews was manifest, even visually. However, was knowledge about the murderous intentions with, or eventual development of genocide at, the concentration camps known to those outside Germany? Before experiencing the concentration camps first hand, Miller herself considered them propaganda. In relating the tribulations that two Jewish friends had during Nazi-occupied Paris, Miller wrote,
If it happened to be a Jew, he or she went straight to Drancy -- end of story -- because from there they went to the extermination camp of Auschwitz and were probably included in the stories of people burnt alive with petrol, the starved and the gas chamber victims, which I am sure you all dismiss as normal propaganda by now.
Therefore, Miller and others considered what they had heard about the concentration camps mere propaganda advanced by their own side. Even upon witnessing the true destruction and mass killing at Dachau, Miller was still disbelieving. Antony Penrose, Miller's son and biographer, suggested that, "Unprepared for the hideousness of political and racist crimes against civilians, they thought at first that the camp [at Dachau] was a grotesque propaganda stunt faked by their own side." Miller and those who were some of the first to perceive the truth behind the Nazi concentration camps were more inclined to believe what they saw as propaganda than to actually believe they were witnessing truth. Her reaction to the genocide at the camps as propaganda is in itself ironic, as Miller must have realized, because what she believed was propaganda by her own country, and therefore what she believed as a non-truth, actually was truth. This then, is the understanding of propaganda and truth that Miller and Scherman would have had after leaving Dachau, and later that same day, when they began their three-day stay in Hitler's Munich apartment. In Hitler's bathroom, Miller and Scherman employed her use of irony and space in constructing an image in which Miller "occupies" the Fuhrers bathtub.
At first glance, the photograph seems to be, as Penrose pointed out, a document of Miller's first inclination to jump into the tub and have her first wash in weeks. And there is a sense of truth in that assessment, such as the candidness of the photograph, her unabashed gaze, the action of washing herself, and the muddied bathmat in front of the tub. Yet, once examined, this photograph of Miller becomes less and less a voyeuristic photograph taken by Scherman simply peering through the bathroom door catching Miller bathing in Hitler's tub. Scherman even recalls that while Miller bathed, an angry lieutenant banged on the door, towel and soap in hand. Indeed, Penrose cited a similar photograph with the roles reversed: Scherman as the subject, and Miller as the photographer. Obviously, they were both in there a long time. Therefore, in reexamining this photograph, some scholars - most notably Melody Davis- have written about its constructed nature. The photograph is constructed in subtle ways to both encode and disguise its purpose. Once contextualized, the significance of the props placed within the composition become more apparent. The photograph of Hitler marks place and ownership - this is Hitler's bathtub. The classically-styled female figure placed on the corner of the counter comments on Hitler's preference for classically-styled figurative art, which Miller would have known full-well, because Surrealism and other modernist movements were censored by Hitler. Miller even commented in her article "Hitleriana" - which chronicles her time in Hitler's apartment- how, "The art work was mediocre as were the paintings on all the walls. I hoped to find one of the master's own works." Miller's reference to Hitler's artistic preferences may also relate, as with the propaganda poster Doob mentioned, to the use of imagery in defining what is "Germanic" versus what is "degenerate" or wrong. Moreover, next to the sculpture is what appears to be an electronic box with three buttons, which Hitler may have used to summon servants, as Miller noted a similar box by his bed. Finally, Miller's boots are stationed on the once pristine-now muddied white bathmat; Melody Davis comments, perhaps metaphorically, how these boots, having been at Dachau that morning, physically transported ashes and evidence of the mass murdering at the concentration camp into Hitler's own "shower". All of these elements within the piece serve to identify, define, and quantify Hitler, his viewpoints, and his claims to power. Yet, they are placed in such a way - at the perimeters of the composition- as to appear secondary and inconsequential. This was not the only photograph Miller and Scherman constructed. During their stay in Hitler's apartment, Scherman, and possibly Miller, produced an image of a G.I. reclining on Hitler's bed skimming a copy of Mein Kampf. This image ran in Life and became one of Scherman's most famous wartime photographs. While much more layered, Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub uses this same technique of constructing an image to encode the photograph with two interconnected purposes: first, to disguise a ritual, a ritual that becomes a commentary on the holocaust. Second, by disguising this ritual, the image becomes representative of the irony enacted by the gap between truth and non-truth in propagandic space, as discussed above.
The ritual presented and recorded in the photograph is multi-faceted: Davis first mentioned the relationship between Miller bathing in Hitler's bathtub and Jewish bathing rituals. It should be pointed out that Dave Scherman was Jewish, while Miller had a deep affinity for Jewish culture. I would like to briefly expand on Davis' idea. In the book Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition, and Practice, Rabbi Wayne Dosick describes the state of ritual impurity, and how the Mikveh, or bath, is used to restore a person to a condition of purity:
The Torah specifies a number of instances in which a person comes into a state of ritual impurity. These circumstances all revolve around loss - loss of bodily fluid, loss of potential life, loss of life itself. In a state of loss, a person was not considered whole.
Dosick notes other types of loss which necessitate a cleansing in a mikveh, including that of coming into contact with a corpse. While it may be too simplistic to assert that an image of Miller in Hitler's bathtub is representative of a bath ritual, the Jewish idea of a person in a state of loss, not feeling whole, may also relate to Miller and Scherman coming to terms with their awkward wartime position as journalists. As Amy Lyford has written, "to be a photojournalist is to function as witness and recorder of the events that make history, not as a participant with the capacity to change that history's course." Because they did not actually participate in the fighting but only documented it, Miller and Scherman may have been striving for some ritual to perform in order to achieve empowerment over all they had witnessed - a ritual that combined aspects of Jewish ritual along with evocations of the powerlessness of photojournalists.
However, this ritual is not readily apparent. Rather, it is encoded into the photographic framework variously by the use of subtlety and obscure symbolism, and the use of encoding the bath ritual itself within the context of the site - Hitler's bathtub. In this manner, Miller and Scherman disguise their ritual. In so doing, they have constructed an image that operates as reverse propaganda: instead of presenting a non-truth tenuously connected to a core truth, here the core truth itself - that of the genocide committed by the Nazis- is disguised within the confines of a medium commonly considered to inherently represent truth. Miller and Scherman are consciously responding to what, until that morning, they had considered propaganda through the means of a ritual and disguising it as a simple snapshot. Therefore, by disguising the ritual, which relates to the core truth, Miller and Scherman actually present no truth whatsoever. Their presentation of no truth causes the space between truth and non-truth, which are always connected, to deflate. We might also think of such a deflation as an irony, for an irony, as mentioned, compares equally two opposites: presented here is truth and no truth, or, essentially, the ritual of two war photographers responding to their realization of what occurred at the Nazi concentration camps compared with what actually is shown - simply a snapshot of Lee Miller in Hitler's bathtub. Possibly, Miller and Scherman realized the irony of having the truth about the genocide at the camps before them for so long, and believing it too extravagant to consider as anything but propaganda.
Perhaps the ravages of the war, culminating in their witnessing first-hand the devastation at Dachau and Buchenwald, caused Miller and Scherman to produce such a layered and multi-leveled image. However, by employing techniques common to her oeuvre, Miller, with Scherman's assistance, used her interest in space and irony in this image of her bathing in Hitler's bathtub in such a way as to surpass any Surrealist notions of representing the unconscious, becoming instead a silent requiem for all those lost to Hitler's social cleansing.
to the editor